The Pope Is One of the Most Skilled Politicians on Earth
by Flavia Krause-JacksonAlessandra Migliaccio
He’s met with a transgender man, told Catholics not to breed like rabbits and washed the feet of a Muslim woman. While all this may sound like he’s ready to overturn dogma, it turns out that Pope Francis is just as interested in geopolitics.
In less than two years in office, he’s nudged the conversation away from abusive priests and used the image makeover to wade into conflicts from helping to restore Cuban-U.S. ties to lobbying for a global climate accord. In September, he will become the first religious leader who serves as a head of state to address a joint session of Congress.
Pope Francis performs the traditional washing of the feet during a visit at a center for disabled people as part of the Holy Week on April 17, 2014 in Rome.
Photographer: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP via Getty Images
“He’s capitalizing on the fascination that he exercises,” said John Wauck, a professor at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. “He’s gotten the attention of the world and is using it.”
By sidestepping the debate on abortion, gay marriage and sex, Francis has positioned himself for a role in world affairs, from the economic crisis to relations with China, according to Father Thomas Reese, author of “Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church.”
Pope John Paul II was single-minded in the pursuit of ending Communism in the 1980s, and Pope Benedict XVI was a gaffe-prone bookworm fretting over relativism. Francis, by contrast, embraces a broad policy agenda outside Vatican walls.
In an echo of the Obama administration, he is even making his own pivot to Asia. He already has been twice to the region shunned by his predecessor with a view not only to refilling pews but also gaining traction with the rising powers.
The challenge for Francis — who hails from a religious order that proselytized in China in the 16th century — is how to duplicate his Cuban success with a more formidable Communist foe. The Holy See and the world’s most populous country have been at odds since 1951 over, among many things, the right to ordain bishops.
Francis, who says he’d go to Beijing tomorrow, has a secret corridor with the new leadership for diplomatic messages. There have been small gestures on both sides: Francis didn’t see the Dalai Lama in Rome, a move that would have incensed Chinese authorities. President Xi Jinping allowed Francis to fly over China’s air space, the first time a pope was granted that right.
The road nonetheless will probably be long. To coax a prickly China, the pope would need to abandon Taiwan, which China has long claimed. There is little sign China is willing to stop its practice of naming bishops independently of the Holy See. China has about 12 million Catholics — three times the number in Ireland — compared with a mere 300,000 faithful in Taiwan.
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There are limits to the reach of papal soft power (PDF) and a trip to China doesn’t appear imminent. By contrast, John Paul II made history less than a year into his papacy when he visited Communist Poland, his homeland, in an act of defiance against the Soviet Union.
When Francis was elected, few pegged him as a foreign policy expert. Unlike predecessors such as John XXIII and Pius XII who were Vatican envoys, Francis’s background betrayed no such preparation — though the interest was always there. Eduardo Valdez, an Argentine diplomat who knew the pope when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, said the two of them never spoke of religion, only global politics.
“He was a frenetic reader of international affairs,” Valdez said.
The gap between knowledge and effectiveness may be large. Francis has dived into tough international conflicts including Korea, Cuba and Palestine and not all have gone well.
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But he that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of scandals. For it must needs be that scandals come: but nevertheless woe to that man by whom the scandal cometh. And if thy hand, or thy foot scandalize thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee. It is better for thee to go into life maimed or lame, than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into everlasting fire. And if thy eye scandalize thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee. It is better for thee having one eye to enter into life, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire. See that you despise not one of these little ones: for I say to you, that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. – Matthew 18: 6-10 DRV
His call for reconciliation between the Koreas met with silence from Pyongyang; the day he arrived on the peninsula, North Korea fired missiles into the sea.
Francis did persuade Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and then-Israeli President Shimon Peres to exchange kisses, grab two shovels and break ground for the planting of an olive tree in the Vatican gardens. While he brought attention to the plight of Palestinians by praying in Bethlehem near graffiti that read “Free Palestine,” his visit was overshadowed by a resurgence in violence.
He was much more successful with Cuba, secretly hosting delegations from there and the U.S. and playing a vital role in the prisoner exchanges that led to renewed ties after half a century.
The pope’s international outlook also is evident in the reconfiguration of the College of Cardinals that will pick his successor, which raises the odds the next leader of 1.2 billion Catholics will hail from Asia or Africa.
That reshuffle — coupled with the removal of critics such as Boston’s Cardinal Raymond Burke from key positions — has agitated a still-strong conservative wing of the church that would prefer a return to business as usual.
“A number of cardinals are upset,” said Father Gerald Fogarty, a professor of religious studies and history at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “You can’t expect the old guard to take it lying down, and they’ve been around a long time.”
He has announced plans to shrink the bureaucracy that runs the millennia-old church, removed executives at the mismanaged Vatican Bank and told cardinals to abandon their limousines and catch the bus.
At the bank, he’s brought a measure of transparency following allegations of illegal behavior and poor oversight. The bank now publishes an annual report, has closed 2,000 accounts and undertaken a review of 18,000 clients.
Drew Christiansen, a former director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace, praised the pope’s openness but added that even though his statements may seem off the cuff, they are in fact carefully planned.
“There is a lot of thought put into his spontaneity,” said Christiansen, who has advised the church in its diplomatic dealings with China. “The overhaul in culture really means that when the pope speaks, people pay attention.”
Not everyone agrees. Traditionalists say he has assaulted doctrine. Some liberals say he is all talk and little substance. His changes inside the Vatican have won him internal enemies, while his expressions of tolerance to gays have earned him, in some quarters, faint praise for coming too late to make much difference: The pope who declined to offer a judgment about homosexuals still isn’t rushing to allow them to marry Church of England-style.
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